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Consumer Reports

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    Top-rated holiday gifts for your favorite foodie

    For the person who appreciates good food and drink, a box of drugstore chocolates or a bottle of 7-Eleven wine aren’t on the wish list. But here’s what is: scrumptious chocolates in beautiful boxes, spiral hams ready for the oven, craft beers, and fine wines. The taste testers at Consumer Reports have the enviable job of sampling all of these foods and beverages. Here are some of their recommendations.

    Ham for the holidays
    A spiral-cut ham arrives dressed for the occasion and in our ham taste tests, the HoneyBaked hams were best of all, according to our experts who tasted six brands, including Applewood Farms and Smithfield Brown Sugar Cured. The HoneyBaked hams were consistently moist and tender with balanced tastes of clove, fruit, and brown sugar that complemented the ham’s natural flavors. And it reheats well without drying out. We paid $74 plus shipping for a 9-pound ham. HoneyBaked is sold in more than 400 company stores and online.

    Amazing chocolates
    That’s how our expert tasters described some of the excellent chocolates in our boxed chocolate tests. The Woodhouse Chocolate 48-piece assortment (pictured) was the best of the 32 reviewed and at $90, the most expensive. These ultra-smooth milk, dark, and white chocolates were paired with flavors such as cinnamon toast, buttery pecan pie, and fresh mint. See the Woodhouse website for 12- and 24-piece assortments and holiday specials. The Christopher Elbow 21-piece collection, $40, scored nearly as high and is for the adventurous eater. These artistic chocolates offer bold, unusual flavor combos such as buttery caramels that taste of mango with chipotle chili or balsamic vinegar. Other recommended chocolates include the Candinas 36-piece box, $49, Jacques Torres Jacques’ Choice 50-piece box, $66, John & Kira’s Every Flavor Collection 56-piece—all are CR Best Buys—and the Theo Artisan Chocolate Confection Collection 12-piece box, $26.  Prices do not include shipping and many top chocolates must be ordered online or by phone since they're not widely available in stores. So check their websites and order soon.

    Wine for gifts or parties
    Giving a bottle of really good wine that you selected is an invitation to try something new, something different. Our judges are two wine-industry experts who have collectively spent more than 60 years professionally tasting a wide range of wines. That said, when it comes to sparkling white wines, GH Mumm Cordon Rouge NV, $40, offers classic Champagne-style bubbly and was intense and complex with ripe apple and yeasty/toasty notes. In other words, it’s delicious. Other recommended sparkling whites include Gruet Blanc de Noirs NV, $16, and Roederer Estate Anderson Valley Brut NV, $21. Among reds the Patz & Hall 2010 pinot noir, $43, from California offers rich, ripe, red and black fruit. Not in the classic, leaner more structured Burgundy style, but very tasty nevertheless.

    Bold craft beers
    Put together a basket of craft beer with some great cheeses for your favorite hipster. Craft ales typically have more intense flavors and their pronounced bitterness and malt, fruity, and floral flavors go well with hearty ripened cheeses such as Stilton or aged Gouda. For lagers choose milder cheeses. Our blind taste tests of 23 craft ales and lagers found three ales that were excellent. The top-rated Stone IPA was very fragrant, with floral, fruity and juniper notes from the added hops. Next was Dogfish Head 60-minute IPA, a great mix of malt and hop notes and more intense than most. Third was Samuel Adams Hopology Collection Latitude 48 IPA, with fruity and malty notes. The best lagers were very tasty but not as complex or intense enough to be rated excellent by our tasters. Five are recommended, including the top-rated Brooklyn Lager and Samuel Adams Boston Lager.

    Restaurant gift certificates
    For the person who enjoys a good meal, how about a gift certificate from a favorite restaurant or a new place that gets good reviews on Chowhound or Zagat’s? And then there are the high-end chains. Capital Grille, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Morton’s, and Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar are the steakhouses that left respondents to our restaurant survey most satisfied. Bonefish Grill was tops of the seafood chains and for more unusual fare try Bahama Breeze and P.F. Chang’s China Bistro .
     
    —Kimberly Janeway

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Britax Advocate ClickTight child car seat may also have a safety problem

    Consumer Reports recently issued a safety notice alerting consumers to a concern with some Britax Boulevard ClickTight and Marathon ClickTight convertible car seats. Since then, several child-passenger safety advocates and consumers posting through social media have reported that another model, the Britax Advocate ClickTight, may be susceptible to the same issue.  

    As delivered, the Advocate ClickTight seats’ safety harnesses may also not have been installed properly. If the harness is not attached properly, the seat may not function as effectively. Although Consumer Reports has found problems with the Boulevard ClickTight and Marathon ClickTight models we purchased, we have yet to purchase the Advocate ClickTight model.

    Based on our research and social media postings, it appears this problem affects only new Britax convertible car seat models with the new ClickTight feature. On sale since September, “ClickTight” refers to a proprietary mechanism on the seats that helps them clamp to a vehicle’s safety belts. This feature is also available on two Britax toddler booster models, the Frontier 90 and Pinnacle 90, which have a different design and are not affected by this issue. In addition, Britax Marathon, Boulevard, and Advocate seats without the ClickTight feature are not affected.

    See our child car seat buying guide and test-based Ratings.

    On the Boulevard, Marathon and Advocate ClickTight models, the harness straps end with a sewn loop that slides over and then into a steel hook. With the seats we bought, the loop had been pulled over the anchor but not engaged fully around the hook. If the hook is not engaged, the harness loop could pull completely off the anchor during normal use. To a consumer, the lack of attachment may not be obvious without examining the lower anchor closely.

    Fortunately, this should be easy for customers to remedy. In fact, the five-point harness design allows for repositioning the straps on their anchors to adjust for different-sized children. Our car seat installation experts found that if they followed Britax's online instructions for adjusting the harness length, they were able to properly resecure the harness strap, paying particular attention to engage the straps inside the hook. But the printed owner’s manual that comes with the seat doesn’t cover that procedure.

    When Consumer Reports queried Britax, the company sent a written statement saying, "Prior to using the seat, ensure that the harness straps are securely connected to the anchors inside the hook."

    Britax convertible seats have performed well in Consumer Reports' car seat tests in the past and we are not aware of any injuries related to this concern. We were impressed with the performance of the ClickTight feature for securing a harness when we tested it on toddler/booster models.

    Mike Bloch

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Are the Best Buy Black Friday TV deals better than Walmart's?

    While many of the TV sales events leading up to Black Friday featured low-priced sets from secondary brands, Best Buy is rolling out the major brands to entice shoppers into its store starting at 5 p.m. Thanksgiving night. That sale starts a full hour before Walmart's Black Friday event, which we reported on earlier.

    So which retailer has the best deals?

    Based on the sheer volume of sets on sale, we give the edge to Best Buy. Among its "doorbuster" specials: the 50-inch Panasonic TC-50A400U 1080p LED/LCD TV, a basic 60Hz set with two HDMI inputs, priced at $200. That’s about $300 less than its regular selling price, and $18 below Walmart's unnamed 50-inch 1080p LED/LCD sets, which will actually be from more than one brand.

    Other Best Buy doorbuster deals include:

    • A 55-inch Samsung UHD TV, model UN55HU6830FXZA, a 120Hz smart TV that will be available for $900
    • The 55-inch LG 55LB5900, priced at $480, a 1080p 120Hz set that doesn’t have many other features
    • A 50-inch Vizio M502I-B1, a 240Hz smart TV set in the company’s step-up M series, for $500
    • A 29-inch Insignia 720p 60Hz LCD TV, model NS-29D310NA15, for $100

    According to Best Buy, savings on those sets will range from about $70 to $500.

    But while there's a broad assortment of sets on sale and prices are attractive, we don't think any trump the 65-inch 1080p Vizio smart TV that Walmart will have for just under $650. If, as we think, it's the E650i-B2, that's well below its current $1,100 price. We just finished testing this set, and it is a full-featured TV with excellent high-definition picture quality.

    In addition to these doorbusters, Best Buy will also have a “Beat the Black Friday Rush” event, offering six special deals over the course of three days (Nov. 20-22 ). Although specific model numbers and prices haven't yet been released, the sale includes a 60-inch 120HZ Sony smart TV and a 40-inch Westinghouse 60Hz 1080p set.

    UHD sets

    TVs are also a focal point of Best Buy's Black Friday weekend sales event. If you're in the market for a higher-resolution UHD (4K) set, Best Buy has several models from multiple brands on sale. All are 55-inch 120Hz smart TV models, which is on the smaller side for a UHD TV. They include:

    • Samsung UN55HU7250FXZA, a curved UHD TV, for $1,300
    • LG 55UB8200 for $1,300
    • Sony XBR55X850B, in its entry-level 4K series, for $1,500
    • Vizio P552UI-B2, a P-series model, priced at $1,300

    Again, based on its own comparative prices, Best Buy claims savings from $100 to $1,500, depending on the set.

    Find the right TV for your needs and budget with our TV buying guide and Ratings. And learn best places to shop for best places to shop for electronics. Visit our Holiday Gift Ideas page for more news on deals and advice on ways to save.

    Larger 1080p models

    You'll have a lot to choose from if you're looking for a bigger 1080p model, a segment in which Samsung is easily the most prominent brand. Among the promoted Samsung TVs is a 65-inch 1080p smart 3D TV, model UN65H7150AFXZA, for $1,498. It normally sells for $2,100. Other larger-sized models in the same series include a 60-inch (UN60H7150AFXZA) set for $1,298, normally $1,700, and a 55-inch version (UN55H7150AFXZA) for $998 instead of $1,700. An even less expensive 55-inch Samsung—the UN55H6203, a 120Hz 1080p smart TV—will be on sale for $600 instead of its regular $1,000 price.

    There are a ton of sales on big-screen sets 60 inches and above, from brands including LG, Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp, and Sony. They include:

    • Samsung's 60-inch 120Hz 1080p LED/LCD smart TV, model UN60H6203AFXZ for $800
    • LG's 65-inch 1080p LED/LCD (65LB5200) for $800
    • Sharp's 60-inch Aquos 1080p LED/LCD smart TV (model LC-60LE644) for $700 
    • a 60-inch Sony 120Hz smart LED/LCD TV, model KDL-60R510A for $800
    • Sharp's 70-inch LC-70TQ15U, a 240Hz 1080p smart LED/LCD TV for $1,800

    Best Buy claims that savings on those sets range from $200 to $1,000.

    Midsized sets

    For those looking for a TV between 40 and 55 inches, Best Buy has these sets, in descending size order.

    • A 55-inch Panasonic 120Hz smart LED/LCDTV, model TC-55AS530U, for $600
    • A 55-inch LG 120Hz 1080p LED/LCD smart TV, model 55LB6300, for $780
    • A 50-inch Sharp 1080p LED/LCD TV, model LC-50LB261U, for $400
    • A 49-inch 1080p LED/LCD TV from LG, model 49LB5550, for $400
    • A 46-inch Samsung 60Hz 1080p LED/LCD TV, model UN46EH5000FXZA, for $400
    • A 40-inch Samsung 120Hz 1080p LED/LCD smart TV, model UN40H6203AFXZA, for $380

    If you’re willing to consider a secondary brand, there’s a 40-inch 60Hz 1080p Insignia LCD TV—the NS-40D510NA15, from Best Buy’s house brand—for $180.

    Savings range from $180 to $400 on those sets, Best Buy says.

    Smaller-sized TVs

    Those with smaller rooms might be interested in sets 32 inches or smaller. They include:

    • A 32-inch Samsung 60Hz 720p LED/LCD TV (UN32EH4003FXZ) for $200
    • A 32-inch Samsung 60Hz 1080p LED/LCD TV (UN32EH5000FXZA) for $228
    • A 32-inch Samsung 60Hz 108op LED/LCD smart TV (UN32H5203AFXZA) for $248
    • A 32-inch LG 720p LED/LCD TV (32LB520B) for $180
    • A 32-inch Sony 60Hz 720p LED/LCD TV (KDL-32R330B) for $190
    • A 24-inch Samsung 60Hz 720p LED/LCD TV (model UN24H4000AFXZ) for $128
    • A 24-inch Samsung 60Hz 720p smart TV LED/LCD TV (model UN24H4500AFXZA) for $150  

    You can save $50 to $100 on those sets, Best Buy says.

    Buyer beware

    Although there are a lot of good deals in Best Buy's Black Friday lineup, be wary of claimed savings—based on our evaluation, they reflect the manufacturer's suggested retail prices, not the TV's real current selling price. Almost every set we checked can be purchased right now for less than Best Buy's claimed usual price.

    For example, among the deals with the biggest savings is the $1,500 Sony XBR-55X850B; it's hard not to be impressed by a UHD being offered at what Best Buy claims is half its current price. But we see it at several places now—including Best Buy itself—for $1,800, so the sale price is really about a $300 savings. And that $900 price cut on Samsung's UN55HU7250FXZA curved UHD TV, sale priced at $1,300? It's available now for $1,300 to $1,500 at a few retailers, including—yes—Best Buy. And while the actual $500 savings on Sharp's 70-inch LC-70TQ15U smart LED/LCD TV (its Black Friday price of $1,800 compared to $2,300 currently at several retailers) is nothing to sneeze at, it's half the claimed $1,000 savings.  

    One real deal: Panasonic’s 50-inch TC-50A400U 1080p LED/LCD TV, which if you can get one will cost just $200. That's legitimately $300 less than its regular selling price—and an even better deal than Walmart's $218 unnamed 50-inch 1080p LED/LCD set. Just remember that Best Buy's doorbuster policy is that there will be limited quantities of the set and no rain checks; you'll need to get a wristband, which will be handed out two hours before the store opens at 5 p.m. Thursday night. How early do you think you'll have to arrive to get one?

    If you're looking for the best TV deals during Black Friday, keep checking back for all our Black Friday and holiday coverage, as we scour all the ads to uncover the best deals on the best sets. And right before Thanksgiving, we'll post our Top 10 Black Friday TV deals blog that will highlight the best bargains we find.

    —James K. Willcox

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    De-stress your holidays: Is your parking lot safe?

    Holiday shopping season presents many challenges. Tracking down this season’s “it toy” or negotiating mall traffic may seem like the biggest perils you’ll encounter, but be wary of the real dangers that occur in the mall parking lot.

    According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1 in 10 property related thefts occurred in the parking lot. Follow these rules of the mall parking lot, and you can avoid becoming part of that 10 percent.

    1. Chose your parking spot wisely

    At the risk of stating the obvious, the closer to the mall entrance, the better. Not only is this convenient, but it is typically the most populated area of the parking lot. It is also the best lit. If you can’t find a spot that’s close to the mall and well lit, keep searching, even if it takes longer.

    2. Lock it up

    If you are on the home stretch of a shopping marathon, it may seem like a small hassle, but take that extra moment to completely lock your car. Most new cars have remote key fobs, but for the older ones, be patient and lock it all up.

    3. Out of sight, out of (the criminal’s) mind

    The best way to keep a mouse out of the house is to hide away the cheese. The same can be said for leaving valuables visible in your car. Any bags or expensive items of any kind should be put in the back and out of sight of would-be-criminals. Make sure the GPS gets put away as well.

    Criminals might also camp out waiting for someone to drop off a large item in the car and go back into the mall. If you have to make another trip back inside, move to another parking space on the other side of the mall.

    4. Have a plan

    Getting lost in the parking lot is a surefire way to make you easy prey. If you have Google Maps on your smart phone, you can “drop a pin” simply by opening the app and holding your finger down on your location when you park. Save that location and you can use GPS to get back to your car without getting lost.

    But don't spend too much time looking at the map. People are easily distracted when staring at a phone, so look occasionally, and be aware of your surroundings the rest of the time.

    5. Avoid Strangers

    The holidays might be a time of goodwill, but criminals play on that sentiment. Be wary of strangers who approach you in the parking lot. Have your keys in one hand and your cell in the other—in case you need to call 911. And remember, the parking lot can also be a crowded place. If you scream, Good Samaritans are not too far away.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Updated 2015 Teslas mean Black Friday discounts

    As Tesla updates the specifications and equipment on its 2015 Model S lineup with available all-wheel drive, new power and range specs, and available “Autopilot,” leftover 2014 models could make great Black Friday deals. (Read our complete Tesla Model S road test.)

    A source inside Tesla has told us that the company has about 2,300 remaining 2014 Model S cars, including showroom display cars, that the company is selling at a discount. Tesla is dropping prices on the cars by at least 1 percent per month from production and offering $1 off per mile on the odometer, where applicable. Our source said about 500 of the cars are dealer demos and service loaners that could have significant mileage on them. In checking with a local dealership, such discounted cars appear readily available. Based on our research, we estimate that you may be able to get as much as a 10-percent discount even on some of the unused leftovers.

    2015 Tesla Model S

    When Tesla introduced its ferocious all-wheel-drive P85D model last month, it wasn’t clear what that would mean for Tesla’s existing versions. Now new spec sheets on the electric-automaker’s website lay it all out. All-wheel drive is available on the P85D and the 85D, in February. All models gain horsepower for the new year.

    The small-battery Model S 60 is available only with rear-wheel drive. Its power rating is up from 302 hp to 380 hp. It is EPA-rated at 208 miles of range and can run from 0-60 mph in 5.9 seconds, according to Tesla. It lists for $71,070, which works out to $63,570 after the $7,500 federal electric-car tax credit, which is available on the leftover cars, as long as they haven't been registered. But it doesn’t come with Tesla’s unlimited mileage battery warranty or standard access to Tesla’s high-speed supercharging stations. Optional Supercharger access costs $2,500, and the battery and drivetrain warranty runs to eight years or 125,000 miles.

    The midlevel Model S 85 in standard rear-wheel-drive form also gets a horsepower bump to 380 hp from its previous 365 hp (like the one we tested). It comes with standard Supercharger access and the infinite-mile battery and powertrain warranty. The range is rated at 265 miles by EPA. (We got about 225 miles, depending on the weather.) Tesla says it will shoot from 0-60 mph in 5.4 seconds; ours did it in 5.6 seconds. And it costs $81,070 after the federal tax credit.

    The 85D has two smaller motors, most likely in an effort to preserve range. Each motor puts out 188 hp, for a total of 376 hp. Tesla claims range of 295 miles, or about 10 more than the single-motor, rear-wheel drive Model S 85. And it’s slightly faster from 0-60 mph than the rear-drive model at 5.2 seconds. The D adds $5,000 to the bottom line.  

    The wild Model S Performance comes only as the P85D with its 691 hp and AWD. It now lists for $105,670. That’s up more than $11,000 from the previous range-topping P85 version. Tesla claims 285 miles of range and 0-60 in 3.2 seconds.

    Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance system package is standard on the P85D and a $4,250 option on other models. Tesla also includes several other convienence options such as navigation and memory seats in this package that drive prices up from those levels. All prices include delivery and documentation.

    Now may be a great time to get a rare discount on a new or nearly new Tesla Model S. Of course, a discounted 2014 Model S won’t have Autopilot or all-wheel drive, but it is still a top-rated luxury car.

    Eric Evarts with Seung Min Yu

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Haggle your way to holiday savings

    When Consumer Reports surveyed shoppers about their bargaining experiences, 89 percent of those who dickered—on everything from jewelry to home electronics—were rewarded for their tenacity at least once in the last few years. And the savings were often substantial: Furniture buyers, for instance, saved $250 on average.

    Unfortunately, fewer people are giving haggling a whirl. With such great odds of success, why do so many of us—more than a third of those surveyed, and notably women—balk? A University of Pennsylvania marketing professor, Stephen Hoch, attributed the reluctance in part to fear of embarrassment, looking cheap, being thought of as poor, and mortification at the prospect of hearing the word no.

    Successful haggling starts with casting aside fears and insecurities. From there, savvy negotiators use various tricks to get to yes. People skills are paramount. Politeness, friendliness, and a smile are tougher to resist than bullying and tough talk. Negotiating isn’t a competition; it’s a zero-sum game. When one party wins and one loses, odds are the deal won’t work.

    What tactics work?

    Survey respondents tried playing merchants against one another, threatening to take their business elsewhere, sifting through user reviews for the best prices, and using flattery or sharing a sob story. Here are the most frequently used tactics among successful hagglers.

    Strategy

    Used by

    Told salesperson I’d check the competitors’ prices

    55 percent

    Searched for lower prices at a walk-in store

    54

    Made a personal connection and chatted it up with salesperson

    43

    Used circulars or coupons from other retailers as leverage

    42

    Checked user reviews to get an idea of what others paid

    38

    Other tips

    Explain why you deserve a break. Because negotiation is a two-way street, the seller needs an incentive to bargain. Explain to your counterpart that you’re a loyal customer who likes to shop locally (a good tactic at mom-and-pop stores); tell the car dealer you intend to bring your vehicle back for servicing.

    Ask open-ended questions. It’s easy to dismiss a proposal outright if you ask a question that can be answered with a blunt yes or no. For instance, say you want a 60-inch television but can only afford a 52-inch model. Try a little diplomacy and couch your request: “I’ve got the perfect space for a 60-inch TV, but the financial issue is a challenge. Is there any way you can help me?”

    Show your smarts.  If you’re tech savvy about gaming systems or well-versed in vintage die-cast toys, share that wisdom and curiosity with the seller. By demonstrating product knowledge of where and how something was made, its history, or the technology behind it, you come across as a qualified buyer.

    Harness the power of silence. Because of the awkwardness it creates, a brief pause can be golden when bargaining. Steven Cohen of the Negotiations Skills Co., advises consumers to remain poker faced and silent after the seller responds to your initial proposition. “They’ll wonder if they’ve offended you,” Cohen said. “They’ll think, ‘maybe what I said didn’t sound so good,’ and repackage the offer into a more attractive one.”

    Find flaws. Cosmetic blemishes are negotiating gold. If you see a handbag with a bad buckle, a sweater with a smudge, or shoe with a scuff, point out those flaws. Independent stores tend to be more flexible than chains, and it’s easier to negotiate a discount involving private-label products than big brands because the retailer cannot return the flawed products to the manufacturer for credit.

    Seek a cash discount.  If you’re willing to pay in cash, some merchants may be willing to cut the price because they can avoid forking over a transaction fee, of as much as 4 percent, to the credit card company.

    Be discrete. Even if the other side is willing to deal, they don’t want to make it public. If there’s a crowd around you, others might demand a break, too.

    —Tod Marks

     

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Why prepaid cards may deserve a second look

    If you use prepaid debit cards, we have some good news. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has just announced a proposal to give you some of the same protections that bank debit card users have.

    Part of what’s driving their proposal is that more consumers than ever are using prepaid cards. Prepaid cards look and work much like bank debit cards, but no bank account is required. Some people deposit their paychecks to their cards, and use them instead of having a bank account, while others who have a bank account use them as a way to budget their money. By the end of this year, the CFPB estimates that $100 billion will be loaded onto prepaid cards, up from $65 billion in 2012 and just $1 billion in 2003. Some two million households now use these cards as an alternative to banks, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

    Read Consumer Reports latest ratings of 26 prepaid cards as well as our full report.

    Yet despite their widespread use, some prepaid cards offer users some protections, though they aren't legally required to. Customers can also be stuck with fees for checking balances at an ATM or loading funds from a debit or credit card. 

    The CFPB announced its proposals on Thursday in Wilmington, Delaware. “It’s a great first step on the road to getting more consumer protection for users of this important product,” says Christina Tetreault, staff attorney at Consumer Union. “We’d like to see prepaid cards come with more protections, though, such as deposit insurance.” 

    Among the protections the CFPB is proposing:

    Disclosing fees and providing clearer rules
    Today, it's not easy for consumers to understand what fees apply to their prepaid cards before purchasing them because such disclosures are inside the packaging or hard to find online. The result is that consumers can’t easily comparison shop and make well-informed decisions before choosing a prepaid card.  Under the proposal, issuers of prepaid cards would have to make terms and fees easily available.

    Protections against errors and lost or stolen cards
    If you lose your credit card or if a charge is made fraudulently, you are protected. Unfortunately, prepaid customers who are double-charged for a transaction or charged an incorrect amount may not be guaranteed a practical way to fix the problem. The CFPB wants to change that and protect consumers from transactions they did not authorize. It also wants to create a timely method for them to get their money back. 

    Easy access to account information 
    If you have a credit card, you get a monthly statement. If you have a prepaid card, you probably don’t. Under the proposal, financial institutions would be required to either provide you with periodic statements or make account information easily accessible online and for free. 

    Adhere to credit card regulation for forms of credit
    Some people use their prepaid cards to borrow money. Under the proposal, prepaid card companies would be required to first make sure consumers have the ability to repay the debt before offering credit. Also, companies would not be able to extend or increase a line of credit related to a prepaid card account unless they consider the consumer’s ability to make the required payments. If you’re under 21, the companies would be required to assess your independent ability to repay the credit.

    There are a number of other protections being proposed as well, including that customers who get credit extended as part of a prepaid card are provided with at least 21 days to repay their debt before they are charged fees. You can read more details about the consumer protections the CPFB is proposing here.

    --Nikhil Hutheesing (@Nikhil212 on Twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Here's what to do with your investments before year-end

    The end of 2014 is fast approaching. It has been a year that has generally been good for the financial markets, and many investors will celebrate by selling their stocks and spending the gains in their portfolio. The reality of all that good fortune, though, could come back to haunt them in April.

    The reason: Investors will probably have capital gains, and what they should do with them isn’t always so clear-cut. Even if you own—but don’t sell—mutual funds outside of a tax-advantaged account, you might receive a capital gains distribution from them. (Most funds will make those distributions at the end of a calendar year.)

    That might sound good, but what you’ll really get is a tax bill. For 2014, investors could owe as much as 23.8 percent on any long-term capital gains they earn from mutual funds or from the sale of stocks and other securities.

    There are ways, though, to minimize the tax bite. Although the tactics we list below aren’t likely to make April’s tax payments completely disappear, they might help reduce them. But you can’t wait until April to take advantage of these tax tips, as is the case with other tax-reducing moves, such as making a last-minute contribution to an IRA. You’ll have to act before the end of the year.

     

    Harvest your capital gains. One of the most common ways to reduce taxes on capital gains is to offset stocks being sold for a gain—up to $3,000 per year—with losses from other investments you own.

    In addition, there’s the opportunity to carry forward realized losses for a number of years. So, for example, if you had a loss of $12,000 after selling an investment, you could apply $3,000 of it to capital gains for 2014, as well as to gains over the next three tax years. Theoretically, if you managed to earn exactly $3,000 in capital gains each year from now through 2017, you would be in the enviable position of owing no capital gains tax in any of those years.

    See more of our tax-saving advice in the Tax Center.

    Reduce your adjusted gross income. This is a twofer: By making one large year-end contribution to an employer-provided retirement plan, you’re not only socking away more for your retirement but also reducing this year’s taxable income. By contributing to a 401(k) plan, you’re deferring taxes for a future period, perhaps one where you’ll be in a lower tax bracket. In the interim, your savings continue to grow, unencumbered by taxes.

    The viability of that tactic might depend on the flexibility of your employer’s retirement-savings plan. Some plans let you make almost instantaneous changes to 401(k) contributions; others aren’t as flexible.

    Give stocks and avoid capital gains. This is another double play. By donating stocks directly to a charitable organization, as opposed to selling them and donating the proceeds, you can avoid capital gains you might have otherwise earned. You can also deduct the market value of the stocks.

    Of course, you can also donate stocks that have lost money and still claim the market value as a deduction. But you have to own the donated stocks for at least a year to take the deduction.

    Watch your asset allocation. Selling or donating investments, whether for tax purposes or for other reasons, will probably have an effect on your asset allocations. So be sure to make adjustments to bring your allocations back to proportions appropriate for your long-term strategy. Often that means buying the same type of asset you just sold.

    Remember, you can’t buy an identical asset—or a substantially identical one—within 30 days of a sale designed to harvest a loss without running afoul of the Internal Revenue Service’s wash-sale rule. But you can buy a similar asset. If you sell a large-cap mutual fund at a loss, for example, you can immediately use the proceeds to purchase a large-cap exchange-traded fund that may hold many of the same stocks in the fund that you just sold.

    Do less. It’s a good idea, from a tax point of view, to avoid selling stocks—particularly winners—before you have to. And when you can, buy funds in which the holdings are not actively traded because that can lead to additional taxes.

    Because more trading often results in more taxable events for a fund, you should consider minimizing the effects by buying index funds. They often have turnover rates of less than 10 percent annually vs. actively managed funds, which can turn over 100 percent or more of their holdings annually. Aside from their lower costs vs. actively managed funds, the lower turnover of index funds also results in greater tax efficiency.

    This article also appeared in the November 2014 issue of Consumer Reports Money Adviser.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Don't donate blindly to police and fire groups

    You get a phone call or letter asking you to donate money to benefit police or firefighters. Who wouldn’t want to help?

    But would you give if you knew that 85 cents of every dollar or more would go to the professional fundraising company that contacted you?

    A lot of the fundraising requests that tug at your heartstrings, including many of those on behalf of police and fire groups, often end up benefiting fundraising firms far more than the nonprofit organizations they represent.

     “People hear the words ‘police’ or ‘fire’ and they assume, sometimes wrongly, that someone on their local force is going to be helped,” said Bennett Weiner, who runs the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, a charity watchdog.

    Consider two police-related fundraising calls a Consumer Reports employee recently received at home. One was on behalf of the Police Conference of New York, which the group’s website says “is recognized by key state elected officials and agency department heads as the preeminent professional police union in New York State.”

    When questioned, the fundraiser told the staff member that “not less than 15 percent” of the donations would go to the group, as opposed to the fundraiser.

    In the second call, on behalf of the New York State Association of PBAs, the fundraiser revealed that “not less than 10 percent” of the money would go to the group, an organization of public safety unions that does business as the New York State Police Association.

    In their IRS filings, neither group reported providing any grants or other direct assistance to individuals, such as injured police officers or their families. Also, donations to the groups aren’t tax deductible.

    For more advice, read "Make Sure Your Donation Counts."

    Fundraisers take the biggest share
     

    These kinds of paltry returns from professional fundraisers, who solicit on behalf of police and fire organizations, as well as other groups, are common. A 2014 report (PDF) by the New York attorney general found that of the $249.3 million donated in 589 professional fundraising campaigns in 2012, only $94.5 million, or 39 percent, went to the nonprofits.

    According to the latest return the New York State Association of PBAs filed with the IRS, the group’s three 2012 fundraising campaigns returned nearly $467,000, of which just $75,000, or 16 percent, went to the organization.

    The return filed by the Police Conference of New York for 12 months ending May 2013 showed that less than $148,000, or 24 percent, of the $613,476 raised went to the group.

    Richard Wells, president of the Police Conference of New York, says the organization uses a professional fundraiser because it couldn’t do any better raising money on its own, after deducting the cost of office space, telemarketers, and phone lines. And by using a professional, he says, the organization doesn’t risk losing money if donations don’t cover the cost of the fundraising campaigns.

    Daniel Borochoff, president of the watchdog CharityWatch, says the groups should find better ways to raise money than using expensive “cold call” telemarketing, such as seeking grants or soliciting from the police officers, whom the organizations benefit. Borochoff says that groups that allow most of their donations to go to professional fundraisers hurt all nonprofits because there are only so many charitable donations to go around.

    “If they can’t raise money reasonably, they should stop doing it and stop wasting our charitable dollars,” he said.

    What to do

     

    Check out a group before giving. Never give on the spot. Instead, investigate any organization that’s requesting support. Unfortunately, the big charity watchdogs, including CharityNavigator, don’t have reports on many local nonprofits. But check anyway. Some Better Business Bureaus, for instance, evaluate local organizations. (The Police Conference of New York did not respond to the BBB’s request for information. There was no BBB report on the New York State Association of PBAs.)

    Another option is to examine a groups’ tax filings (form 990), which are available with free registration at GuideStar. To find the forms, search for the group’s name, then go to its page and click the “Forms 990 & Docs” tab. Interpreting Form 990 can be a little daunting, but you may be surprised at what you can learn right away. The Nonprofit Coordinating Committee of New York offers a primer for reading Form 990 if you’d like to become a charity super sleuth. Remember that just because a group doesn’t use a professional fundraiser doesn’t mean it’s not spending too much on fundraising, as opposed to its charitable program, which the BBB Wise Giving Alliance says should account for at least 65 percent of a group’s spending.

    Avoid the fundraiser. Ensure that your entire donation goes to the nonprofit by saying no to the professional fundraiser and giving directly to the group.

    Verify tax deductibility.  If you’re counting on a tax deduction, verify that contributions to the group are tax-deductible. Ask the group or search the list in IRS Publication 78.

    —Anthony Giorgianni

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    How to haggle your way to holiday savings

    When Consumer Reports surveyed shoppers about their bargaining experiences, 89 percent of those who dickered—on everything from jewelry to home electronics—were rewarded for their tenacity at least once in the last few years. And the savings were often substantial: Furniture buyers, for instance, saved $250 on average.

    Unfortunately, fewer people are giving haggling a whirl. With such great odds of success, why do so many of us—more than a third of those surveyed, and notably women—balk? A University of Pennsylvania marketing professor, Stephen Hoch, attributed the reluctance in part to fear of embarrassment, looking cheap, being thought of as poor, and mortification at the prospect of hearing the word no.

    Successful haggling starts with casting aside fears and insecurities. From there, savvy negotiators use various tricks to get to yes. People skills are paramount. Politeness, friendliness, and a smile are tougher to resist than bullying and tough talk. Negotiating isn’t a competition; it’s a zero-sum game. When one party wins and one loses, odds are the deal won’t work.

    What tactics work?

    Survey respondents tried playing merchants against one another, threatening to take their business elsewhere, sifting through user reviews for the best prices, and using flattery or sharing a sob story. Here are the most frequently used tactics among successful hagglers.

    Strategy

    Used by

    Told salesperson I’d check the competitors’ prices

    55 percent

    Searched for lower prices at a walk-in store

    54

    Made a personal connection and chatted it up with salesperson

    43

    Used circulars or coupons from other retailers as leverage

    42

    Checked user reviews to get an idea of what others paid

    38

    Other tips

    Explain why you deserve a break. Because negotiation is a two-way street, the seller needs an incentive to bargain. Explain to your counterpart that you’re a loyal customer who likes to shop locally (a good tactic at mom-and-pop stores); tell the car dealer you intend to bring your vehicle back for servicing.

    Ask open-ended questions. It’s easy to dismiss a proposal outright if you ask a question that can be answered with a blunt yes or no. For instance, say you want a 60-inch television but can only afford a 52-inch model. Try a little diplomacy and couch your request: “I’ve got the perfect space for a 60-inch TV, but the financial issue is a challenge. Is there any way you can help me?”

    Show your smarts.  If you’re tech savvy about gaming systems or well-versed in vintage die-cast toys, share that wisdom and curiosity with the seller. By demonstrating product knowledge of where and how something was made, its history, or the technology behind it, you come across as a qualified buyer.

    Harness the power of silence. Because of the awkwardness it creates, a brief pause can be golden when bargaining. Steven Cohen of the Negotiations Skills Co., advises consumers to remain poker faced and silent after the seller responds to your initial proposition. “They’ll wonder if they’ve offended you,” Cohen said. “They’ll think, ‘maybe what I said didn’t sound so good,’ and repackage the offer into a more attractive one.”

    Find flaws. Cosmetic blemishes are negotiating gold. If you see a handbag with a bad buckle, a sweater with a smudge, or shoe with a scuff, point out those flaws. Independent stores tend to be more flexible than chains, and it’s easier to negotiate a discount involving private-label products than big brands because the retailer cannot return the flawed products to the manufacturer for credit.

    Seek a cash discount.  If you’re willing to pay in cash, some merchants may be willing to cut the price because they can avoid forking over a transaction fee, of as much as 4 percent, to the credit card company.

    Be discrete. Even if the other side is willing to deal, they don’t want to make it public. If there’s a crowd around you, others might demand a break, too.

    —Tod Marks

     

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Don't panic if you have signs of diabetes

    Today is World Diabetes Day, and in the U.S. alone more than a third of adults—about 86 million people—have early signs of that disease, a condition called prediabetes, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That means a person's blood sugar is elevated but not high enough to be diagnosed as type 2 diabetes.

    But it's still a serious concern, the CDC says. Some evidence suggests there’s a 15 to 30 percent risk of developing type 2 diabetes within five years if the elevated blood-glucose levels are not managed properly. Further ratcheting up the alarm, 90 percent of people who have prediabetes don’t even know they have it, the CDC says.

    Given the massive numbers, you or someone you’re close to undoubtedly now falls under the prediabetic label. To find out if you're one of them, take the American Diabetes Association's risk test and get screened if you're at elevated risk.  

    So what’s the best way to address the problem? Do not panic and jump directly to taking medication, because currently there is no FDA-approved medication for prediabetes; if a doctor prescribes one, he or she is doing so “off-label.” At least one diabetes drug has been safe and effective in reducing the development of diabetes, but others may have serious side effects.

    Pioglitazone (Actos), for instance, may lead to weight gain and heart failure. One medication, troglitazone (Rezulin), was found to be toxic to the liver and taken off the market in 2000. “We were ready to use diabetes medications in healthy people with prediabetes,” says Victor Montori, M.D., professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

    Get strategies to help you manage diabetes in our Guide to Diabetes.

    The power of weight loss

    A much more effective path than drugs to reduce the risk for dia­betes is making lifestyle changes. The Dia­betes Prevention Program (DPP), a long-term study of overweight individuals with prediabetes that was supported by the National Institutes of Health, compared making lifestyle changes to taking the drug met­formin, an inexpen­sive generic that’s considered effective and safe (although it can cause diarrhea and nausea). About half of the participants in the lifestyle group lost at least 7 percent of their weight through a low-calorie, low-fat diet and exercising at a moderate intensity (such as walk­ing briskly) for at least 150 minutes per week. Those in the lifestyle group were 58 percent less likely to develop diabetes, whereas those who took metformin reduced their risk by only 31 percent.

    In June 2014, in a follow-up to the DPP study, researchers announced that after an average of 15 years, lifestyle changes reduced the risk of developing type 2 dia­betes by 27 percent, whereas metformin lowered the chance by 17 percent. “People regained some of the weight they lost over time, which may explain why the lifestyle changes became slightly less effective,” says David M. Nathan, M.D., chair of the Diabetes Prevention Program. “But they are still more potent than drugs.”

    The case for medication

    For some people, taking medication does make sense. The American Diabetes Association says to consider metformin if your blood sugar is higher than normal 2 hours after drinking a sugary solution after fasting, especially for those people with a body mass index of 35 or more. But you still need to make lifestyle changes. Consider enrolling in a diabetes prevention program (see below). “The most important thing you can do is lose weight,” Nathan says. “For every 2.2 pounds you lose, you’ll have a 16 percent lower risk of diabetes.”

    How to make lifestyle changes that last

    Avoiding type 2 diabetes might be easier if you enroll in a lifestyle-change program that has been proved to work. The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recognized more than 300 diabetes programs across the country that base their eating and exercise plans on the findings of the Diabetes Prevention Program.

    Over the course of 16 weeks, lifestyle coaches teach you how to choose healthier foods, boost your physical activity, and make those changes stick. Programs are held at YMCAs, universities, hospitals, health departments, and community organizations. To enroll, you must have a body mass index of 24 or higher (or equal to or greater than 22, if Asian), and you may need to provide proof that you’ve been diagnosed with prediabetes. For a list of programs in your area, go to cdc.gov/diabetes/prevention/recognition/registry.htm.

    A version of this article also appeared in the November 2014 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Consumer Reports’ Health Insurance Tool Helps Consumers Navigate Open Enrollment

    HealthLawHelper.org Can Help People Understand Their Options and Take Advantage of Tax Benefits; Open Enrollment starts November 15

    YONKERS, NY — With the open enrollment period for health coverage beginning on Saturday, November 15, Consumer Reports has a web-based tool at HealthLawHelper.org offering valuable information to help consumers navigate their healthcare options.

    The newly updated web-based tool at www.HealthLawHelper.org offers personalized guidance to help consumers better understand how they may be affected by the Affordable Care Act. The tool is also available in Spanish at www.AseguraTuSalud and across a variety of platforms, including mobile and tablet.

    “Health Law Helper is designed to help consumers quickly and easily get information about how the health care law may affect them and their families, understand any new options that may be available, and provide direction on how and when to take action,” said DeAnn Friedholm, Director of Health Reform at Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports.

    Launched in September 2013, Health Law Helper has been updated to connect consumers with critical information about tax credits under the health law and how to qualify. Last year, 80 percent of people who signed up for coverage under the new law also qualified for tax credit discounts.

    The site allows consumers to get connected with advice from Consumer Reports experts about what to do if a plan is being cancelled. Consumers can submit their coverage questions and stories to Consumer Reports experts. The revised site also reflects all the changes for the new open enrollment season, which is much shorter this year and ends on February 15, 2015.

    A recent survey on health care costs conducted by Consumer Reports in 2014 found one-third of all consumers indicated they had postponed doctor visits, tests, filling prescriptions, or surgery, due to cost. Nearly half (46 percent) of the underinsured denied themselves medical treatment for reasons of cost. And, more than half of consumers said their deductible is too high (52 percent) and their premium is too high (51 percent).

    HealthLawHelper.org is a customized, consumer-tested platform that takes complex insurance information and breaks it down into practical and useful nuggets for the average consumer. The tool has been designed to address a wide variety of individual situations and circumstances. Using the online tool is a simple process for consumers. They are asked to answer basic questions about their whereabouts (state and citizenship status), their family (including size and household income), and their current health insurance status.

    Some things about the site haven’t changed. You can still use it to:

    • Get personalized advice on our best options for insurance coverage and whether you need to make any changes during the open enrollment season.

    • Learn about penalties and tax requirements under the new law.

    • Connect with resources including in-person assistance, tips on picking a health plan, and much more. 

    “Make sure you have the coverage you need,” Ms. Friedholm said. HealthLawHelper.org can help you understand your options—and make the smartest decision for you and your family.”

    Consumer Reports is the world’s largest independent product-testing organization. Using its more than 50 labs, auto test center, and survey research center, the nonprofit rates thousands of products and services annually. Founded in 1936, Consumer Reports has over eight million subscribers to its magazine, website, and other publications. Its advocacy division, Consumers Union, works for health reform, food and product safety, financial reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.

    Consumer Reports Poll Methodology

    This survey was designed by the Consumer Reports National Research Center and conducted by GfK Research in July, 2014. The online survey was conducted using the web-enabled KnowledgePanel®, a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population.

    The survey design also included two supplemental sample groups to ensure ample sample sizes for analysis: (1) 500 “heavy users” of health care services (2) 500 uninsured respondents. For analysis, these supplement samples were added to those identified belonging to each group in the original sample of 1,000 resulting in 1,079 heavy users and 620 uninsured.

    Sample error for each group at the 95% confidence level is as follows: 1,000 general population +/- 3.3; heavy users of health care services = +/- 3.3%; uninsured respondents = +/- 5.1%. Initially, participants were chosen scientifically by a random selection of telephone numbers and residential addresses. Persons in selected households are then invited by telephone or by mail to participate in the web-enabled KnowledgePanel®. For those who agree to participate, but do not already have Internet access, GfK Custom research, LLC (including its subsidiary Knowledge Networks, Inc.) (“GfK”) provides at no cost a laptop and ISP connection. People who already have computers and Internet service are permitted to participate using their own equipment. Panelists then receive unique log-in information for accessing surveys online, and then are sent emails throughout each month inviting them to participate in research.

    More technical information is available at http://www.knowledgenetworks.com/ganp/reviewer-info.html.

    Funding for this survey was provided in part by The Atlantic Philanthropies.

    Media Contact:
    David Butler, Consumers Union, 202.462.6262 or dbutler@consumer.org

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    6 things to do now to get ready for the holidays

    Getting ready for the holidays may seem like an overwhelming job but it doesn’t have to be. The experts at Consumer Reports have broken down a typical holiday to-do list into little jobs to tackle over the next few weeks. If you start right now, you won’t be scrambling to get stuff done at the last minute. Here are seven things you can do in the next two weeks to ease your way into the season.

    Light up entrances. Double check that doors and pathways are amply lighted, especially if you usually use the side or back entrance. For porches and posts, we recommend the Cree 9.5-Watt (60W) A19 Warm White Dimmable LED, $8.50. It warms up fast, works in enclosed fixtures, and works with timers, photo cells and motion sensors. For security lights, consider the Great Value 90W PAR38 LED Soft White Non Dimmable, $22, sold at Walmart, which was a winner in our lightbulb tests. Or you can pay more for the TCP 17W PAR38 Flood LED, $40, if you prefer a bulb that that works with a timer,  photo cell, and is motion sensitive.

    Inspect your appliances. It might take a few weeks to repair a major kitchen appliance or get a new one, so now’s the time to make sure yours aren’t about to conk out. A cold oven could be the result of an iffy circuit board or igniter switch, and inoperable burners or elements could be caused by a bad receptacle. If your range is beyond repair, check the results of our range tests. You’ll find some top-performers at good prices including our top-rated electric smoothtop, the LG LRE3083SW, $800. For gas, consider our CR Best Buy, the Frigidaire Gallery FGGF3032MW, $775.

    Consider buying a freezer. A separate freezer can store frozen cookie dough, stock, and other make-ahead stuff, saving time during the holiday crunch. And throughout the year, it can lighten your food budget by providing storage for bargain bulk purchases. Upright freezers take up less floor space, and many self-defrost, so you won’t need to thaw out the unit. Our freezer testers’ pick: the Whirlpool EV161NZT, $700. Chest freezers typically cost less, offer more usable space than uprights, and are less likely to cause freezer burn. We like the Frigidaire Gallery FGCH25M8L[W], also $700.

    Sharpen your knives. Sharp blades make all of the chopping, slicing, and carving to come faster and safer. You can use the honing steel that came with your knife set or go for a professional sharpening, which can cost $5 or less per blade. Need some new knives? Two top knife sets from our tests are the Zwilling J.A. Henckels Twin Professional “S,” $315, and Ginsu Chikara, $75. The knives in these sets are available as individual pieces, so you can buy only what you need.

    Fireproof your home. If you burn wood fires in your fireplace, an annual checkup is a must. The nonprofit Chimney Safety Institute of America can steer you to a certified sweep, who will probably charge $150 to $300. Also remember to extinguish candles when leaving a room or before going to bed at night.

    Arm the alarms. Your home should have a smoke alarm on each level and in all bedrooms and hallways. In our smoke alarm tests, dual-sensor models quickly detected fast, flaming fires as well as smoky, smoldering ones. We recommend the Kidde PI9000, $23. You should also keep a full-floor fire extinguisher on each level of your home, plus a supplemental one in the kitchen.

    —Adapted from ShopSmart

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Historic U.S.-China emissions pact could bring even more efficient cars

    A historic agreement between the White House and China to limit greenhouse gas emissions could have a lasting effect on the types of cars we drive.

    The agreement calls for the United States to emit 26 to 28 percent less CO2 than it did in 2005. Transportation accounts for about 28 percent of total greenhouse emissions in the United States. Light-duty vehicles, the type of cars and trucks that consumers drive, account for 63 percent of that total. (CO2 emissions are directly linked to the amount of fuel a car or truck burns.)

    For its part, China has pledged to stop increasing its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and to get 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by then.

    The Obama administration had already set aggressive greenhouse gas emissions targets that would require cars by 2025 to average 54.5 mpg. (That's a regulatory target that includes credits and other incentives; the average fuel economy figures shown on new-car window stickers should average closer to 39.4 mpg.) These standards require twice the overall decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, although it’s unclear how much of that may come from cars. (Read about how the higher fuel economy standards will save you money.)

    That’s likely to be a tall order in the face of gas prices that have dropped to the lowest levels since 2008, reaching a national average of $2.94 a gallon last week.

    Americans are responding to the decreasing gasoline costs, according to the latest results in an ongoing fuel economy survey from the University of Michigan. In September and October, new-car buyers flocked to SUVs and trucks that get worse gas mileage than cars, reducing the average fuel economy of new cars by 0.5 mpg. The sales fleet average had peaked in August at 25.8 mpg.

    This is still more than 5 mpg better than the average vehicle purchased in late 2007, thanks largely to new technology boosting gas mileage in a wide variety of cars and trucks.

    It’s worth noting that this trend emerges every time gas prices drop and likewise reverses when prices inevitably climb.

    Car buyers: Don’t be lulled into minimizing fuel economy when buying your next vehicle. We think choosing a car with better fuel economy is a good financial hedge against future increases in fuel costs. And as we’ve said before, consumers have plenty of good choices among cars and even SUVs that get great fuel economy today.

    —Eric Evarts

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    ShopSmart’s Guide to Saving Big with Beauty Product Swaps

    Tips for buying primo makeup and skin-care products at drugstore prices

    SS Dect14 CoverYONKERS, NY ― The price of beauty products can get ugly, but ShopSmart, from Consumer Reports, found that shoppers don’t always have to shell out big bucks for products comparable to brand-name items. In its December 2014 issue, ShopSmart experts scoured the beauty aisles of department stores, drugstores and boutiques to find high-priced products shoppers can swap out to save big.

    “Don’t over-spend on beauty products,” said Lisa Lee Freeman, editor-in-chief of ShopSmart. “After reviewing ingredient lists, we found drugstore cosmetics that are comparable to high-end brands sold at Sephora and department stores.”​

     Four Tips to Finding the Best Beauty Buys

    Below are four insider tips and tricks from ShopSmart for finding budget-friendly options similar to expensive products from boutique brands.

    • Try sister brands.  One way to find affordable alternatives to high-ticket items is to go to the website of a premium brand and see whether the company also owns less expensive lines. For instance, a lower-priced line of anti-wrinkle creams might have ingredients and formulations similar to a higher-priced brand from the same maker. Example: L’Oréal owns Kiehl’s and Garnier.

    • Compare ingredients lists. Compare what’s in high- and low-cost products in stores and on websites such as Drugstore.com, which lists ingredients for most of its inventory. If the first five ingredients are the same or nearly the same, then the product is probably very similar. Example: MAC Studio Fix Fluid (1 fluid ounce) and L’Oréal True Match Super Blendable Makeup (1 fluid ounce).

    • Follow the blogs. Instead of experimenting on themselves, shoppers can learn from beauty bloggers who recommend similar-looking makeup shades. For instance, DrugstorePrincess.com found a Wet n Wild Color Icon eye shadow palette for $5 that is almost a dead ringer for an Urban Decay set priced at $54.

    • Look for look-alike products. ShopSmart’s tests have found that look-alike store-brand foods, drugs and personal-care products are often smart buys. These products are the ones with labels that say “compare to,” then list a name-brand product that’s usually next to it on the store shelf. Example: Walmart’s Equate version of Cetaphil Moisturizing Lotion did almost as well as the brand-name version in ShopSmart’s tests.

    For the full story on ShopSmart’s insider tips to saving big with beauty swaps, along with other ways to shop and save, pick up the December 2014 issue on newsstands now. 

    About Consumer Reports:
    Consumer Reports is the world’s largest independent product-testing organization. Using its more than 50 labs, auto test center, and survey research center, the nonprofit rates thousands of products and services annually. Founded in 1936, Consumer Reports has over 8 million subscribers to its magazine, website, and other publications. Its advocacy division, Consumers Union, works for health reform, food and product safety, financial reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.

    About ShopSmart magazine:
    Launched in Fall 2006 by Consumer Reports, ShopSmart draws upon the publication’s celebrated tradition of accepting no advertisements and providing unbiased product reviews. ShopSmart features product reviews, shopping tips on how to get the most out of products and “best of the best” lists. It’s ideal for busy shoppers who place a premium on time. ShopSmart has a newsstand price of $4.99 and is available nationwide at major retailers including Barnes & Noble, Walmart, Kroger, Safeway and Publix. ShopSmart is available by subscription at www.ShopSmartmag.org

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    The best and worst for in-car infotainment

    Keeping your kids entertained during holiday travel isn’t always a treat for parents. Never-ending chants of “Are we there yet?” can often be quelled with a dose of in-car entertainment or access to power outlets to charge personal electronics, such as a laptop, smart phone, or tablet. But our experience, and survey data, show that not all infotainment systems deliver on the promise of stress-free, cutting-edge entertainment on the road.

    The key to road-trip parenting? Distractions.

    Getting used to the multifunction cross-linked infotainment systems found in most new cars usually requires a fairly steep learning curve. Linking phones to the car’s Bluetooth system, downloading apps to help with fuel economy or finding ways around traffic snarls, and even simple operation of a car’s audio system sometimes require studying the car’s owner’s manual or online video tutorials.

     And some of you might even be wondering, “What’s an infotainment system?”

    Basically, these systems and related electronics include the audio, navigation, and in-car communications that involve the touch screen, unified multifunction controller, portable music interface, Bluetooth pairing, voice-command system, backup camera, and so on. Clearly, these can be challenging systems to learn and as one might suspect, their complexity brings potential reliability concerns.

    In Consumer Reports’ latest Annual Auto Survey, we’ve seen the number of complaints about these systems proliferate among new cars. Our subscribers reported problems that required repairs, such as unresponsive touch screens, a reluctance to pair phones, and integrated controls that don’t function properly.

    The system that was the worst in our survey is the Infiniti InTouch, found in the company’s Q50 sedan. How bad is bad? More than one in five owners reported a problem with it. Other systems that were buggy include Chrysler’s Uconnect touch-screen system and Cadillac’s CUE.

    Reliability aside, some of our test cars’ systems are easier to use than others. Here’s a look at some standouts—good and bad.

    Highlights from the better systems

    Chevrolet Suburban

    When you count USB ports, there are almost enough power sources in this large SUV to start your own electric company. You get a USB outlet inside the hidden storage spot behind the touch screen, two in the open bin near the cup holders, two inside the center console, and two more behind the console for rear-seat passengers.

    Inside the center console are also an auxiliary port and SD card slot. Passengers can also power up with 12-volt outlets in the open bin near the cup holders, outside the center console for those in the second row, and one more integrated into the armrest in the third row. Finally, you get a 115V/150W outlet behind the center console for rear-seat passengers.

    Hyundai Genesis

    For navigation, the voice-command system understands street addresses and cities all in one sentence as you would typically search Google, rather than go line by line. But the best testing moment came when we uttered one of the most dire phrases: “Find me a Starbucks.”

    Within seconds, the system listed five of the nearest caffeine houses. And the system doesn’t make you say things such as “points of interest,” “restaurants,” or even “coffee shops.” It knew right away what we were craving. This voice command software is among the best we’ve experienced.

    Subaru Outback

    Pairing a phone is easy, and voice quality is clear and crisp. You can set the system up to read incoming text messages.

    We especially liked the availability of prewritten "replies" that come up on the car's center screen, such as "I'm on my way" or "I'm driving right now. I'll call you back later." Just touch one of the replies and you're done.

    And some of the most frustrating systems

    Audi A3

    For some reason, Audi thinks you need three ways to manually change the radio station, and none of them are simple. You can choose among:

    • Rotating the central controller (MMI) wheel and clicking on the station you see on the screen.
    • Clicking the left side of the steering wheel controls when in "radio" mode, which gives the station name/frequency in the driver's instrument panel.
    • Programming the "*" button on the right side of the steering wheel to change stations. (This button can also be programmed to switch among audio sources, say, from your phone's playlist to satellite radio.)

    Perhaps Audi lets you do this because the A3 doesn't have a traditional radio faceplate with hard buttons right in front of you. Even the single CD player is hidden away in the glove box.

    BMW M235i

    Using the voice command system for navigation is pretty good, but you have to speak very slowly and carefully. We could only find a coffee shop by using this sequence of commands: “navigation,” “destination,” “points of interest,” and then “coffee shop.”

    Mercedes-Benz S550

    Normally, pairing a phone to most cars is fairly straightforward. Not with the S-Class. Using a voice command term we’ve used to pair phones to lots of test cars, we hit the VC button on the steering wheel and said, “Pair phone.” We got nothing. Pressing the phone icon on the steering wheel was also met with silence. Then we looked up the proper term for pairing a phone in the car’s “Voice Control System” operating manual, where we found nothing on how to tell the car to pair a phone.

    We also tried using voice commands to find our local FM NPR radio station. Starting out, we pressed the voice command button on the steering wheel and said the words “tune radio to 90.5” which returned 92.1. Then we tried saying “radio 90.5,” which produced 94.9. We tried a different approach and said “FM 90.5,” which gave us 89.5. Finally, we said “radio NPR.” That brought us to the satellite radio station “NPR Now.” Close, but no cigar. Clearly, “luxury” and “convenience” can be mutually exclusive.

    Did you know that even older cars can be retrofitted with systems to help integrate your phone? Check out our experiences with Apple’s CarPlay for a peak on how it works.

    All these systems are evolving—in functionality and reliability. We’ll keep buying fully-featured cars and tell you which ones are worth buying and which ones we’d skip.

    Mike Quincy

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Black Friday laptop deals include models for less than $200

    Shopping around for a great Black Friday deal on a laptop? Go to Wal-Mart if you want a basic, inexpensive computer for Web browsing, e-mailing, video streaming, and simple productivity work. If you’re looking for a laptop that can handle photo editing and other more-challenging tasks, you'll find a wider variety of choices at Best Buy.

    One of Best Buy’s better upcoming deals is on a 15.6-inch HP ENVY TouchSmart. On Black Friday it will be on sale for $500, down from its current price of $700. This laptop's Core i5 processor and 8GB of memory should be powerful enough for just about anything, and the 750GB hard drive provides plenty of space for saving photos and videos. It also has a touchscreen, making it an even better buy for the money.

    If you’re an Apple fan, you’ll be able to grab an 11.6-inch MacBook Air for $780, well below Apple's price of $900. Equipped with a Core i5 processor and a 128GB solid-state drive, it earned a very good score for performance in our Ratings and has 13 hours of battery life. Apple’s 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display will also be on sale, for $900, which is $200 less than Apple’s price. A similar model had excellent performance in our Ratings, with 12.5 hours of battery life.

    Those on the lookout for a laptop that costs $200 (or less) will have better luck at Wal-Mart. The bargain-priced computers you'll find there won't offer blazing performance, but they should be fine for simple computing tasks.

    Before you hit the stores on Black Friday, be sure to check out our computer Buying Guide. Also don't miss our holiday shopping guide.

    One HP laptop, a 15.6-inch model with 4GB of memory, a 500GB hard drive, and a Celeron processor will sell for $160. Laptops using this processor have generally received fair performance scores in our Ratings, which is good enough for routine tasks like word processing, e-mailing, Web browsing, and even video streaming.

    Looking for something other than a run-of-the-mill laptop? Wal-Mart will also offer a two-in-one computer that converts from a laptop to a tablet. It’s a Toshiba model with an 11.6-inch display and a Pentium processor. It will cost $300, not bad for a tablet/laptop combo.

    Make sure you look carefully at the fliers for these sales. Some items will be available on Thanksgiving Day, while others won’t go on sale until Friday.

    --Donna Tapellini

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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  • 11/14/14--11:59: Keep the Internet open
  • Keep the Internet open

    The debate over the future of the Internet is heating up, and the outcome could fundamentally change your online experience.

    At Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, we strongly support the principle of an open Internet. When you go online, you should be able to choose the content you want, and your Internet service provider, or ISP, should deliver all that content to you the same way. Whether it’s a big company such as Amazon or a startup, you ought to be able to access them at the same level of quality and speed. This concept of net neutrality was essential to making the Internet the extraordinary resource of information, ideas, and commerce that we enjoy today.

    What we don’t want is your ISP to charge certain sites for special treatment, while other sites are saddled with slower speeds and second-class status. That would give a handful of providers, including Comcast and Verizon, the power to pick winners and losers in the marketplace. The content companies with the deepest pockets would be strong-armed into paying ISPs for priority service, while other companies would find it impossible to compete. You'd likely wind up being charged more money with fewer choices and options online than you have today.

    Four years ago, the Federal Communications Commission created rules to preserve an open Internet. But Verizon filed a lawsuit against the rules, and a court struck down most of them. In the spring, the FCC chairman, Tom Wheeler, proposed new rules, which sparked a firestorm of criticism from citizens and groups—including Consumers Union—who said the proposal was not nearly strong enough.

    For instance, we believe the proposal would allow the kind of “paid prioritization” deals that go against the most basic principles of an open Internet. Nearly 4 million people have sent comments to the FCC—the vast majority in favor of tougher standards—while the agency keeps working on a final set of rules.

    We think the best way for the FCC to preserve an open Internet is to reclassify broadband ISPs as “common carriers,” under what’s known as Title II of the Communications Act. This would give the FCC the legal authority it needs to prevent ISPs from blocking or discriminating against content providers. A common carrier would not be allowed to cut special deals with one company to get better treatment than its competitors. 

    President Obama recently came out in support of reclassifying ISPs as common carriers. We were pleased to hear it, because we think this really is the best path to keeping the Internet open. We have driven home that same point to the FCC in meetings and formal comments we filed with the agency, and we will keep working to get the strongest possible standards to help consumers.

    This feature is part of a regular series by Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. The nonprofit organization advocates for product safety, financial reform, safer food, health reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.

    Read other installments of our Policy & Action feature.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    7 things you can do about IRS phone scams

    Tax season may be months away, but IRS telephone scams are still in season. Two particularly virulent IRS phone frauds are making the rounds. In one, con artists posing as IRS agents are calling individuals and demanding immediate payment for bogus tax bills—with the threat of legal action for noncompliance. In another ploy, they're calling and offering help for a phony tax liability.

    Here's what one individual heard when she picked up the phone.

    "Hi! This message is intended to contact you. My name is [name withheld]. I am calling regarding an enforcement actions executed by U.S. Treasury intending your serious attention. Ignoring this will be a  econd attempt to avoid initial appearance before a magistrate judge or a federal grand jury for a criminal offense.  My telephone number is [number deleted]. I advise you to cooperate with us and help us to help you. Thank you."

    Here is what to do if you get one of these phone calls.

    • Do not call back or reply to a text message or e-mail.
    • If they catch you unawares and you answer the phone, hang up.
    • If for some reason you have stayed on the phone with them long enough for them to threaten to call the police and have you arrested, feel free to say, "please do send the police." 
    • Report calls claiming to be from the IRS or the Treasury Department to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at 1-800-366-4484 or at www.tigta.gov. This is an impersonation scam. The IRS says on its website that it "never asks for credit card, debit card or prepaid card information over the telephone, never insists that taxpayers use a specific payment method to pay tax obligations, and never requests immediate payment over the telephone and will not take enforcement action immediately following a phone conversation."
    • If you believe you have a legitimate tax payment issue, call the IRS at 1 (800) 829-1040. Staff members there can connect you with someone who can help you work out a resolution. 
    • File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.
    • Depending on your state, you may also be able to report the crime to your state's consumer protection unit, which may be a section of the state's attorney general's office.
    (Thanks to Hazel Heckers, a victim advocate in the I.D. Theft/Fraud Investigation Unit of the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, for contributing to these tips.)
     
    —Tobie Stanger (@TobieStanger on Twitter)

    Read about how to stop robocalls and telemarketers. Consult Consumer Reports for expert tips on guarding your identity

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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  • 11/14/14--16:29: 5 healthy snacks at the mall
  • 5 healthy snacks at the mall

    It’s mall season, which means you could find yourself with no healthy snacks and nothing to eat but food-court grub. Those treats might be tempting, but watch out: You can do a surprising amount of diet damage while out shopping.

    If, for example, your willpower wanes and you end up at Dunkin' Donuts, you might order the pretzel salt bagel, which has a seemingly harmless 310 calories. But it has 3,380 milligrams of sodium, more than twice the 1,500 mg maximum recommended for people 40 and older, African-Americans, and anyone with high blood pressure. It's even well above the maximum recommended for everyone else: 2,300 mg.

    So what’s a hungry shopper looking for healthy snacks to do? Go in with a game plan. Consumer Reports crunched the nutrition numbers at food-court chains so that you’ll know which ones to hit—and which to skip.

    1. Craving a fruit smoothie?

    Most of the smoothie-type drinks we looked at, including those from Dunkin’ Donuts, Auntie Anne’s Pretzels, and Cold Stone Creamery, will set you back at least 230 calories for a 16-ounce cup. But Cinnabon’s is a calorie-palooza. Not only will the Jamba Juice light drink save 350 calories, but it’s also fat-free and has some fiber.

    Tip: Go to food-chain websites to check calorie counts before you head out to shop.

    NICE

    Jamba Juice light banana berry smoothie (16 oz.)

    NAUGHTY

    Cinnabon strawberry banana Chillatta (16 oz.)

    170 calories 520 calories
    0 fat
    8 grams fat
    125 grams sodium 75 milligrams sodium
    32 grams sugar 101 grams sugar
    3 grams fiber 0 grams fiber

    2. Craving something salty?

    In this comparison, even if you eat the whole container of popcorn, which is 3 cups, you’d still save 160 calories over the pretzel. But you’d be downing twice the fat, so share it with a friend!

    Tip: If you still opt for the pretzel, watch the dipping sauces; a serving of sweet mustard will add 60 calories and 2 grams of fat; a serving of cheese dip will pile on 150 more calories, 12 grams of fat, and a whopping 850 milligrams of sodium.

    NICE

    Doc Popcorn better butter (small)

    NAUGHTY

    Auntie Anne's Pretzels original pretzel

    60 calories (per cup) 340 calories
    3.5 grams fat 5 grams fat
    90 milligrams sodium 990 milligrams sodium
    0 sugar 10 grams sugar
    1 gram fiber 2 grams fiber

    3. Craving something sweet and creamy?

    Choosing low-fat frozen yogurt over ice cream is usually the better bet—as long as you keep serving sizes small (4 ounces is just a half-cup) and stick to real fruit toppings. An ounce of M&Ms sprinkled over it piles on 137 calories; a serving of dry-roasted almonds adds 169 calories.

    Tip: If you’re at Cold Stone Creamery, order the frozen yogurt. A 5-ounce serving will set you back 170 calories; that might sound like a lot, but it’s still much less than the ice cream.

    NICE

    Yogen Fruz Userve low-fat vanilla (4 oz.)  

    NAUGHTY

    Cold Stone Creamery vanilla-bean ice cream (about 5 oz.)

    110 calories 330 calories
    2 grams fat 19 grams fat
    72 milligrams sodium 75 milligrams sodium
    19 grams sugar 28 grams sugar
    0 grams fiber 0 grams fiber

    4. Craving a sweet treat?

    The scone is a lot punier than a Cinnabon, and it’s not as gooey sweet. But it will save you 760 calories and 12 teaspoons of sugar. Also skip the diet-unfriendly minibons; they might look harmless, but they have 350 calories and 14 grams of fat.

    Tip: Even downsized versions of some mall snacks can be outrageous. Think twice before ordering, or share.

    NICE

    Starbucks petite vanilla-bean scone

    NAUGHTY
    Cinnabon Cinnabon classic

    120 calories 880 calories
    4.5 grams fat 36 grams fat
    95 milligrams sodium 830 milligrams sodium
    8 grams sugar 59 grams sugar
    0 grams fiber 2 grams fiber

    5. Craving a cold latte?

    Both drinks are a hefty 16 ounces, even though one is dubbed small and the other grande. But the Starbucks drink, made with whole milk, has almost twice the calories and is not fat-free like the Dunkin’ Donuts latte.

    Tip: "Lite” and “skinny” are usually code for drinks and foods that are lower in fat and calories. But you can make any coffee drink skinnier by asking for it to be made with skim milk.

    NICE

    Dunkin' Donuts iced latte lite (small)

    NAUGHTY
    Starbucks Iced Caffe Latte (grande)

    80 calories 150 calories
    0 grams fat 7 grams fat
    110 milligrams sodium 95 milligrams sodium
    10 grams sugar 11 grams sugar
    0 grams fiber 0 grams fiber
    More mall no-no's

     

    Cold Stone Creamery apple dumpling dessert:

    1,050 calories, 49 grams fat, 870 milligrams sodium, 83 grams sugars

    Wetzel’s Pretzels pepperoni twist:

    630 calories, 19 grams fat, 1,400 milligrams sodium

    Auntie Anne’s Jumbo pretzel dog:

    610 calories, 29 grams fat, 1,150 milligrams sodium, 10 grams sugar

    Starbucks iced lemon pound cake:

    470 calories, 20 grams fat, 310 milligrams sodium, 42 grams sugar

    Nestlé Toll House Café Café Mocha:

    438 calories, 9 grams fat, 385 milligrams sodium, 81 grams sugar

    Get more food reviews and ratings in our Food & Drink Guide.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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